OSC Recycling & Sustainability Service Group

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Waste and Garbage in the Regional News

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Problems of solid waste management are making daily news in South Asia. This Opinion from the Hindu highlights some of the problems with the consumer society that the world is becoming. Sri Lanka faces a similar dilema

Mannathukkaren, Nissim. “Garbage as Our Alter Ego.” The Hindu. 3 Nov. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.

Garbage as our alter ego

“That’s the whole meaning of life … trying to find a place for your stuff” — George Carlin

The iconic American comedian, and that brilliant dissector of the human condition, George Carlin, had in a 1986 sketch about “The Stuff” shown us how our tendency to acquire more and more stuff — material commodities — generates great anxieties about how and where to store them. Even your house is not a home, but “a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” What Carlin did not tell us, at least in this sketch, is that much of the stuff does not find a place, it ends up as garbage: as waste, trash and refuse.

If there is one thing that is symptomatic of the modern human condition, but hardly recognised as such, it is garbage. Garbage is capitalism’s dark underbelly, its pathological alter ego. That is why we keep disavowing it, refusing to believe it exists.

Vilappilsala standoff

But the more we deny it, it rears its ugly head, as most recently, in Vilappilsala panchayat in Kerala where the standoff between the local people, who are opposed to the reopening of a waste treatment plant, and the State has left 2 lakh tonnes of solid waste lying unprocessed, threatening an environmental disaster.

It is, therefore, remarkable that the current boisterous debate on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail in India has completely ignored the question of garbage. By focusing only on the supposed virtues of waste reduction in perishable goods (like fruits and vegetables) brought about by the better storage facilities of retail conglomerates, the issue of the latter’s humongous ecological footprint (for example, in terms of sprawl, increase in driving, and the proliferation of non-biodegradable waste) has been bypassed.

According to a report from The Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, D. C., in the 20-year period from 1990, the same period in which Walmart grew to be a behemoth, the average number of miles that a U.S. household travelled for shopping increased by around 1000. And from 2005 to 2010, despite Walmart’s initiation of a reduced waste programme, its reported greenhouse gas emissions shot up by 14 per cent.

Big-box stores don’t just improve efficiency in consumption, they also increase consumption manifold, which ultimately results in phenomenal amounts of trash. The garbage generated by Americans annually reportedly amounts to 220 million tonnes, and 80 per cent of U.S. goods are used only once before being trashed.

In the mythologies of modernisation and development, we sing paeans to skyscrapers and nuclear plants. But there is no accompanying dirge about the costs we have had to pay for them. If there was, then we would have heard of Puente Hills — the largest active landfill/waste dump in the United States, which is a 1,365-acre monstrosity — as much as we have about the World Trade Center or the Empire State Building.

It is ironical, Edward Humes tells us in his book Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash, to call Puente Hills a “landfill,” for the garbage mountain has long ceased to fill a depression in the land and rises now an unbelievable 500 feet above the ground, a space capable of holding 15 million elephants. It takes, of course, a gargantuan effort, as Humes describes, to keep the toxic substance that leaks out of the 130-million tonne waste (which includes 3 million tonnes of soiled disposable diapers — another “important” invention of modern life) from poisoning groundwater sources.

Nevertheless, waste is seen, in popular development discourse as a “third world” problem, the ubiquitous mountains of garbage that blight the face of cities and towns in the poorer parts of the world — one of the first tasks that the newly-elected President in Egypt had was cleaning up the garbage mess in Cairo. And the citizens of the third world have internalised this discourse, seeing themselves as part of the “dirty” developing world blissfully unaware of the cost at which a “clean” developed world is maintained. Thus the story of the Somali pirates plundering the high seas has become a part of global lore but not that of Somalia being a (cheap) dumping ground for some of the most toxic garbage, including nuclear and medical waste, from Europe for the last two decades and more. As long as the streets are clean in Frankfurt and Paris, does it matter that children are born in Somalia without limbs?

‘Waste imperialism’

It is in this context of “waste imperialism” that the question of garbage needs to come out of its subterranean existence and occupy centre stage in any discussion on development, including FDI in retail. It is not accidental that dumping grounds, and waste treatment plants are invariably located in places where the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of the population live, whether in the developed or developing worlds. Not surprisingly, garbage has become an important political tool in the present with garbage strikes and struggles around garbage taking place in various cities in the West and elsewhere. The contestation in Vilappilsala has been going on since 2000 when the waste treatment plant opened with serious ecological impact.

We would be living in a mythical world if we think that the problems of waste can be solved only with better rational planning, management or recycling. In the U.S., even after decades of environmental education, only around 24 per cent of the garbage is recycled with nearly 70 per cent of it going into landfills.

Simply throwing trash into the recycling bin hardly does anything to reduce the production of rubbish; on the contrary it might lull us into a false sense of complacency as Heather Rogers, the author of Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage argues. This is because household waste constitutes a minuscule percentage of the total waste produced, the vast majority of which is constituted by waste from industrial processes. As she shows, the mantra of recycling and green capitalism has been adopted by corporations and big business because it is the least threatening of the options to profit margins — no wonder, the rate of production of goods and, consequently, trash has only increased. More importantly, in this “greenwashing,” the responsibility of cleaning up the environment is displaced from corporations to people themselves in their own individual, personal capacities.

Economy of ‘zero waste’

To be sure, there are rare examples like Germany, which have nearly eliminated landfills, and recycle up to 70 per cent of the waste. But the fact that the Cröbern Central Waste Treatment Plant in Germany, one of the most sophisticated plants in the world (built at a cost of $ 135 million), has been allegedly involved in criminal garbage profiteering by illegally securing solid waste from Italy (to sustain the operations of the plant) shows how tenuous and fragile the economy of “zero waste” is.

Ultimately, the problem of waste cannot be fathomed without recognising the order of capitalism, which is built on the relentless production of commodities and the philosophy of planned obsolescence, in which goods are built to have short shelf life. As Sarah Moore of the University of Arizona has pithily pointed out the contradiction: “Modern citizens have come to expect the places they live, work, play, and go to school to be free of garbage — to be ordered and clean. These expectations can never be fully met, however, precisely because the same processes of modernization that have produced them have also produced a situation in which garbage proliferates.”

The “golden age of capitalism” is thus also the “golden age of garbage.” Just between 1960 and 1980, solid waste in the U.S. increased by four times. This is the exponential growth in garbage the world over, which has rendered the Pacific Ocean awash with plastic particles thus making plastic outnumber zooplankton at a shocking rate of 6:1. And this is the growth that has ironically made garbage and its disposal a multi-billion dollar business, and has made the mafia enter and control it, as in Italy.

Developing countries like India, with almost non-existent waste disposal systems, catastrophically seek to move to the next (superfluous) stage of consumption by imbibing the culture of Walmart. In this scenario, if justice for both human beings and nature has to be ensured, the alter ego of garbage can no longer be hidden under the carpet. It has to be confronted head on.

(Dr. Nissim Mannathukkaren is Associate Professor, International Development Studies, Dalhousie University.)


Written by recycling1011

2012-11-14 at 2:51 PM

Posted in News Articles

Growing Waste Management Concerns in the Colombo News

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Several articles in local newspapers have highlighted the mounting problem with waste disposal in Colombo. Space is running out and no one wants a waste dump in their backyard. For those of us familiar with the situation here, this development comes as no surprise. It is clear that the city needs to do a better job with separating waste, composting biodegradable matter and recycling materials. Reducing the actual consumption is the ideal, though with the increase in social mobility and standards of living this seems unlikely at the moment.

Meanwhile at OSC, changes in what the municipal folks pick up may force us to look more carefully at our Recycling and Sustainability group’s plans to separate, compost and recycle our campus waste as part of an integrated campus waste management program.

Screen shot from the Sunday Times (16 September 2012)

See the articles below:

Written by recycling1011

2012-09-13 at 3:29 PM

Posted in News Articles

Recycling Options in Battaramulla for New Faculty, Parents & Students

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This message went out to all OSC faculty at the begining of the school year:

OSC has been making a conscientious attempt to reduce its ecological footprint through the campus Recycling and Sustainability program. Since many of you are new to the school and Sri Lanka you may have questions about what to do with your used paper, batteries, plastic containers etc. This memo should address the basic issues but you are always welcome to drop by to ask me questions (room S24).

In recent years the issue of waste and, in particular, plastic waste has been a nagging problem in Colombo and much of Sri Lanka. Garbage is often piled up on roadsides and in unattended public garden areas. People frequently set this on fire, unaware that burning plastics such as PVCs is one of the surest ways to encourage cancer and other health problems. The same unattended waste in urban areas is also directly connected to past spikes in dengue fever cases.


OSC has had a recycling program for several years but we are always looking to improve the percentage recycled and decrease the amount of waste that our campus community produces. The Recycling and Sustainability service group has a recycling shed under the big water tank near the gym/cafeteria where we store items. Once the community service programs start running on Thursday afternoons a noisy band of students (grade 5 and up) will be coming around to collect paper, clean plastic, batteries, cartridges etc. from your classrooms. They will also provide you with a box if you don’t already have one. We lock the door to avoid problems of people dumping unsegregated waste in our room. If you have a surge in recyclables, contact me and I can open the door so that you or your students can bring things down.

A growing concern on the campus is that rate at which we use paper and printer cartridges. According to last year’s data the unregulated use of color printers costs the schools significantly- roughly $30,000 a year which is about a third of the technology budget!! Please be aware of this as you print. A few simple steps can reduce the load here:

  • Give out as much class material as possible electronically (Managebac is a great way to do this).
  • Only print critical documents in color (you can turn off the color on the printer profile).
  • Use the back-to-back option in the printer set up. Ask if you need help with this.
  • Avoid printing multiple copies of color copies unless is it absolutely necessary (photocopies cost much, much less per page).

To reduce campus waste we have experimenting with compost bins at the end of the secondary “S” building. There are four concrete boxes and a green Arpico bin. At the moment they have dried up and need fresh attention. My students and I are available to provide lectures to younger students on the marvel of a working compost bins!


You will soon discover that electricity is an expensive resource in Sri Lanka (roughly 50% is from hydro sources while 50% is fossil fuel-based thermal generation). Air conditioning is the single biggest consumer in households and at school. Keeping your doors closed and turning off the ACs when you are not in rooms makes a significant difference. It also reduces your carbon footprint and is a tangible way to make a difference about climate change. In the cooler months we encourage you to open windows and doors in school and to use fans. Several years ago we had a policy of not using ACs in the mornings (before break). This worked quite well except in rooms that could not open their windows. The canteen needs monitoring since the doors frequently get locked in the open position. Be sure to help students to close doors.


We would prefer that you DO NOT bring recyclables items from home to school. Instead you can utilize one of the recycling “eco-kiosks” around Colombo. There are also scrap dealers that buy paper, cardboard and some items. In fact the Recycling and Sustainability group has made thousands of rupees selling our waste paper and cardboard to a buyer down the road near the Central Environment Authority (Rs. 6 for a kg of paper and Rs. 10 for a kg of cardboard). There is an Eco Kiosk about two kilometers away from the school on the Kandy Road that leads out of Battaramulla (see map below). The center is open from 6:00 AM-3:00 PM seven days a week. There is usually an attendant who monitors the center and is very helpful when you take him things. He is especially grateful if you have cleaned all the items that you take there. Unfortunately it has become a bit of dump site for mixed garbage. Unscrupulous citizens drop bags at night when it is not monitored and today the place is not as inviting as it should be. Here’s what he takes:

  • Plastic (containers as well as bags and packaging)
  • Paper & cardboard
  • Metal
  • Glass
  • Batteries, printer cartridges etc.

If you have a decent-sized yard, consider buying a green compost bin from Aprico or the Central Environment Authority (@ Rs 3,500). These are designed to be rodent proof and if you maintain them properly (by balancing kitchen waste with yard waste)  they will not smell. They produce rich organic fertilizer every 3-4 months and take care of most of the kitchen waste that makes your garbage containers stink! Please come and see our family’s four compost containers if you want to see a functioning system (we have a container at school but they haven’t received the love and dedication that my household ones get).

The Recycling and Sustainability service group will continue to tackle other issues on the campus (kitchen waste, the sale of plastic bottles etc.) during the year. Our student leaders this year are Jennifer and Satyanshu (both in Grade 12). We maintain a blog at https://recycling1011.wordpress.com/where you can check out our sales figures, latest photographs and occasional articles. Thank you for your cooperation! Let’s work together to make 2012-13 a cleaner more sustainable school year!

Written by recycling1011

2012-08-26 at 5:27 AM

Posted in News Articles

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Forbes India on New E-Waste Guidelines.. a model for Sri Lanka?

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Screen Shot from E-Wast article

See the following link for this article….



Written by recycling1011

2012-05-16 at 2:48 PM

Posted in E-Waste, News Articles